Warming up to the appliances of yesteryear

Reliability: An increasing number of people are opting for the solid construction and old-fashioned charm of vintage ovens and washers.

September 24, 2001|By Mary Beth Breckenridge | Mary Beth Breckenridge,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Barbara Snyder's gas range has quite a few unusual features.

There are the burners with the extra holes that make a nice flame and can be turned way down, the handy shelf over the stove and the open space underneath that's perfect for storing pans, the green marbled trim that creates a crisp contrast to the off-white enamel surface.

Then there's the dual-functioning oven. In winter, it also serves as a space heater.

It doesn't bother Snyder that the uninsulated oven puts out so much heat that she can't use it in summer. The appliance looks really neat in the kitchen of her century-old house, and heck, she said, she can just use her microwave-convection oven in the pantry instead.

Snyder cooks on a range that she figures was made in the 1920s. It's a long-legged beauty that she, an Akron, Ohio, real estate agent found in the basement of an old house she was showing. She bought it for something like $50, then spent three days taking it apart to clean it.

"It was kind of preserved, because it had so much grease and stuff on it," she remembers.

What most people throw away, Snyder and other old-appliance buffs treasure. They prefer the simplicity and old-fashioned appearance of vintage stoves, refrigerators, washers and dryers to the frost-free, computer-controlled, sleek-silhouetted major appliances of the present.

Vintage-appliance owners are a fairly small lot, but their ranks are growing now that the Internet has provided easier access to parts and services, said Jack Santoro, an appliance restorer in Ventura, Calif., and founder of the Old Appliance Club (www.antiquestoves.com/toac), a clearinghouse for vintage appliances.

For Snyder, who also owns a General Electric Monitor Top refrigerator from the 1920s, the appeal is largely looks: She wanted appliances that were appropriate to her house, which was built in 1900. An icebox would have been more authentic, she admits with a grin, but "I'm not willing to go quite that original."

Santoro said many owners also are drawn to the quality of the appliances - they were made of higher-quality steel and built to last, he said - as well as to the ease with which they can be repaired.

Most old appliances can be fixed with hand tools "because that's the way they were put together," he said.

Besides, Santoro said, many of the old models were surprisingly energy-efficient.

Take, for instance, the Monitor Top, the Cadillac of refrigerators in its day. The motor is on the top, so the heat it generates rises up and away from the appliance instead of through the refrigerated compartment. It's the same principle used in pricey Sub-Zero refrigerators today, he said.

Jim Scichilone of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, likes to point to cost savings as part of the appeal of his 1955 Philco refrigerator and 1959 Kenmore washer. The refrigerator, devoid of energy-gobbling extras like defrosters and automatic ice makers, costs him about $11 less a month to run than the frost-free, side-by-side model he used to have.

The washer has a Suds Miser feature that allows wash water to be saved in a stationary tub and siphoned back into the washer for reuse.

Of course, he also believes those mid-20th century appliances just look really cool.

Scichilone's house is filled with his collection of them, including a 1954 Frigidaire washer and dryer, a portable clothes washer from about 1952 with a wheel on the side to agitate the water and a wringer operated by a foot pedal, and a 1951 Youngstown Kitchens dishwasher that loads from the top - a rare find that the previous owners had never even hooked up.

"People used to say to me, `Jimmy, if you got rid of all your stuff, you could have one nice appliance,'" he said. "Well, I don't want one nice appliance."

Instead, Scichilone prefers the kick he gets out of making old things work, and he does repairs as a side venture to his main job as an estate liquidator. Regular visits to junkyards around the country turn up old parts, and he even has an identical refrigerator for cannibalizing in case he needs parts for his prized Philco.

For people who aren't quite so handy, tracking down out-of-production parts and finding people to repair older appliances are probably the biggest drawbacks to owning them. But that's less of a problem now that the Internet has broadened the market, Santoro said. His Old Appliance Club, for example, was created as a way of helping people find appliances, parts, service and information, and its quarterly magazine contains ads for that purpose.

As long as an appliance has all its parts, "there's really virtually nothing you can't bring back," Santoro said.

He cautions, however, that an old appliance that's missing parts is no bargain. If a refrigerator doesn't have racks or a stove is missing burners, finding replacements is a long shot, he said.

That wasn't enough to stop Snyder, though. Her refrigerator lacked some shelves and needed a new gasket, so she just substituted plastic storage shelves and used weatherstripping to seal the door. Her oven has no thermostat, so she hung a thermometer inside it and has learned to judge temperature by the height of the flame.

"You have to really improvise when you're working with old stuff," Snyder said.

Still, she and other old-appliance owners are willing to look past the inconveniences in order to keep their old reliables running.

For many, owning an old appliance is a bit of a rebellion, Scichilone said, a rejection of the lesser quality of newer appliances and of the marketing forces that create a constant craving for something new.

"It's their way of saying that the world is moving too fast, and we need to slow down," he said.

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